The piercing ring startled Constance Hodges out of deep sleep. She groped for the phone, her blind fingers grazing the alarm clock, tissue box, and stack of nighttime reading. She lifted the receiver. “Yes?” Her voice was a gravelly whisper.
She cleared her throat. “Speaking.”
“It’s Cheryl O’Brien.”
Hodges pushed herself up in the bed and glanced at the dial on the clock. Clarity quickly dispersed the fog in her brain. The Park Manor night nurse would not call her at four fifteen AM unless something was wrong. Had a resident with dementia rolled out of bed and hit their head? Had an independent living resident suffered a sudden heart attack or stroke and been rushed to the hospital in the private ambulance on call for just such occasions? Or had death—life’s inevitable equalizer—once again visited their privileged confines? Based on Cheryl O’Brien’s grave tone, Hodges sensed that the latter occurrence had precipitated this call. “Who is it?” she asked.
She held her breath and wondered which name the nurse would utter. Virtually every Park Manor resident was a once prominent New Yorker or relative of a now prominent New Yorker, and whenever one of them passed the veil, they prompted a lengthy New York Times obituary, a high-profile funeral at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel on Madison Avenue, where all of Manhattan’s elite went out in style, and at least one new exposé about the obscenely privileged care given to Park Manor’s “senior one percenters.” Each of their deaths required Constance to play many parts—grief counselor, funeral planner, family therapist, and personal advisor—in addition to her official role as Park Manor’s executive director.
“It’s Lucy Merchant,” Cheryl O’Brien answered.
The name ricocheted through Hodges’s brain, and she was so surprised that she failed to edit her first reaction. “How can that be?”
“Maybelle Holder found her during the four AM check.”
“Found her where? What happened?”
“We don’t know. She was just lying in bed.” The nurse’s tone suggested that she was equally stunned by the turn of events and that she had enough insight into the dynamics of Park Manor’s business to appreciate at least some of the consequences. Lucy Merchant was no frail octogenarian whose peaceful passing in the night would signal the sad but acceptable culmination of a long life lived to the fullest. Lucy Merchant was only fifty-six years old. Her obituary would tell the tale of a musical theater legend turned choreographer stricken with early onset Alzheimer’s and dead within two years. It would spotlight her grieving daughter, Julia, and her high-profile husband, Thomas, chairman of the Bank of New Amsterdam.
Hodges turned on her bedside lamp and tried to focus on all the tasks Lucy Merchant’s death would entail today, but the familiar death steps wouldn’t crystallize into a coherent mental checklist. Focus, she thought, as if this silent admonition would magically shift her mind into gear.
As she scanned the room, her eyes registered the Courvoisier XO bottle and minisnifter sitting next to her clock. There was still an inch of cognac from last night in the bottom of the glass and she imagined gulping it down right this minute. It would spread a soothing numbness through her extremities, she thought, like one of those heat-producing analgesic creams that athletes and arthritis sufferers used. She felt her left arm begin to reach for the snifter. But if she sipped the cognac now, before she was even out of bed, wouldn’t it signal that she had crossed an invisible line, that she had a serious alcohol problem? Wouldn’t it mean that she was out of control?
“Ms. Hodges?” Cheryl’s voice brought her back to the moment.
Hodges picked up the snifter and swallowed. She closed her eyes and relished the hot burn down her esophagus. Her thoughts coalesced into a mental flowchart of what she must do: Get to Park Manor. Call Thomas Merchant. Speak to the physician on call. Debrief the night staff. “Is Baiba there?” she asked Cheryl.
“I’ve phoned her. She’s on her way.”
“Good. I’ll be there shortly,” she told the nurse in a now commanding voice. “Leave Mrs. Merchant where she is. Lock her door. Tell Baiba to let no one in. Keep the Nostalgia night staff on site until I have time to speak with them. And call Dr. Fisher immediately. Have him meet me there. We need him to certify the death as soon as possible.”
Detective Claire Codella was used to waking up at all hours of the night. After all, murders in this city—in any city—did not conveniently occur only between nine AM and five PM. But no call had come from Manhattan North this morning. No murder explained why she had been lying awake since four AM.
She slid her palm across the mattress to the other side of the bed where the sheet was cool to the touch, no body heat to warm it, and for an instant she regretted that she had sent Haggerty home, that she had chosen to face this morning alone. In the very next instant, however, she reminded herself it was better this way. Wasn’t it just naïve to think that anyone—even the person you were closest to—could ever really accompany you into your own dark places? And anyway, how close was she really to Brian? Until three months ago, they hadn’t spoken in a year, since the night at the St. James Pub when he’d worked up his courage from way too much Knob Creek and told her—albeit inelegantly—how he felt about her. He’d expected her to admit her feelings, too. But she hadn’t. Instead, she’d accepted a promotion and run all the way to Manhattan North. Then she got the lymphoma diagnosis and went through ten months of cancer treatment without even calling him—how could she? And he hadn’t called her, either. Only later did she learn that he had come to the hospital to visit her, stood outside her room, and seen her at one of her lowest moments—when she was rattling the side rails on her bed and screaming for the nurse to bring morphine. He’d known she would be furious, that her dignity would be crushed, if she knew he’d seen her like that. And so he’d walked away, as hard as that had been to do.
Cancer had made her a little more vulnerable, she supposed, a little more receptive to him. She cared about him, of course, but she wasn’t one of those women who needed someone around all the time, someone to tell her everything was going to be all right. She’d been taking care of herself for as long as she could remember. She’d gotten herself to New York on her own, she’d earned her gold shield without any help from an uncle in the ranks, and during her chemotherapy, she’d earned the equivalent of a PhD in self-reliance. She didn’t need Haggerty or anyone to give her reassurance. She would be fine. And if she wasn’t—well, then so be it.
She whipped back the blankets and sat up. The room was as cold as her fear. The frigid February air from her open window helped her sleep at night, but it did not make rising very easy or comfortable. She dragged herself to the bathroom, closed the door against the bedroom’s cold front, flipped on the bright, uncompromising light, and stared into the medicine chest mirror. Her black hair was disheveled from Haggerty’s hands. The pale skin around her lips was red from his wiry stubble. And the crow’s feet at the outer edges of her eyes seemed to have disappeared. She remembered kissing him in her living room. And then she closed her eyes and relived the rest of the night with equal measures of satisfaction and apprehension. Her relationship with Haggerty was never going to be the same again.
She splashed warm water over her face. Did her need to forget about this morning explain why she had let him come here last night? Or had she simply given in to desire that had been on hold for too long? It was probably a little of the first, she admitted, and far more of the second. She had been a stranger in her body for more than a year. Cancer had moved in and evicted her desire, and when the cancer had moved out, she had been too terrified to reclaim what was rightfully hers.
To his credit, Haggerty had sensed this, and he had let her call the shots. Even when she was on top of him, even when he was inside of her, he had waited for her to make the first move. “Go ahead,” he had whispered as if he knew she needed coaxing, as if he understood she was afraid to try this ultimate act of vulnerability and pleasure that she had not experienced since cancer had changed everything. And while he had whispered his permissions, she moved—tentatively at first, then with growing desire, and finally with need that erased self-consciousness—until she exploded into a mushroom cloud of sensations that fragmented her whole being like atoms dispersing. When she had finally rolled off of him, she felt her first moment of deep peace in almost two years.
But now that peace was decaying like a radioactive isotope, and in its place, cold dread was forming once again.
Brandon Johnson found Baiba Lielkaja in the corridor that connected the east and west suites. “Can I go in Lucy’s room, Baiba, just for a second? I want to say good-bye.”
Baiba frowned. “Didn’t you already see her?”
Brandon shook his head. “I drew the short straw—again. I’ve been sitting and walking with Mr. Lane for three hours. Please. This could be my only chance.”
He touched the sleeve of Baiba’s burgundy Park Manor blazer and stared into her blue eyes. She was wearing no makeup this morning, he observed, and her long blond hair was pulled back into a tight ponytail. She had rushed to work without taking her usual time in front of a mirror. Still, she looked perfect, he thought. She had always looked perfect to him, ever since the afternoon two years ago when she had interviewed him for the Park Manor job. He remembered staring across the desk at her. He had imagined how soft her pale, high cheekbones must be. He had felt mesmerized by the sound of her ever so slight Latvian accent.
“Please, Baiba,” he repeated, and he sensed that she would grant his request—for the same reason she had pressed an envelope into his hand last week. Baiba’s caregiving instincts didn’t shut off after hours, and when he had told her his story—more of it than he’d ever told anyone other than Judith Greenwald—she had wanted to become a part of his happy ending. “I admire your strength and courage so much,” she had told him as she’d reached across the diner table, covered his hand with her warm palm, and insisted he take her envelope containing three thousand dollars.
Now she glanced over her shoulder down the quiet east corridor. Six resident suites were situated on this side of the “Nostalgia Neighborhood,” as Park Manor called its memory care unit. Lucy occupied the suite in the far corner overlooking Madison Avenue. Brandon could see her rooms clearly in his mind. He had tucked Lucy Merchant into her bed six nights a week for the past eighteen months, and now he found it impossible to accept that she was really gone. He had to see for himself. He had to bring her death to life.
Baiba fished in her blazer pocket. She was his manager and she was eight years his senior—he had organized the Park Manor party last month for her thirty-first birthday—but age and titles didn’t matter. They were friends, and she would do this for him. “Come with me—quickly,” she said as she pulled out her keys. He followed her down the carpeted corridor lined with photographs of turn-of-the-century New York City. As she unlocked Lucy’s door, he stared at a photo of Fifth Avenue mansions on “Millionaire’s Row.” Those mansions still stood just blocks from Park Manor. “One minute, Brandon,” she told him. “That’s it. No more.”
And then he was alone in Lucy’s rooms. He took a deep breath. Despite the meticulous care provided by Park Manor’s staff, some Nostalgia residents’ suites had the faint odor of old age and incontinence, but Lucy’s apartment always smelled like jasmine body lotion and the bouquets of fresh-cut flowers her family had delivered every four days. Her still-drawn curtains blocked the bright morning light. Lucy lay in the middle of the bed exactly where he had left her last night at ten thirty. She was on her back, and someone—Maybelle, he supposed—had arranged her hands neatly over her stomach. Maybelle would do something like that out of respect for the dead.
He kneeled next to Lucy’s quiescent body. In death, as in life, she was an arrestingly attractive woman. Her brows arched symmetrically. Her skin was spotless. She had one of those rare, perfect noses that even the most sought-after Upper East Side cosmetic surgeons could never artificially sculpt. And unlike the other Nostalgia residents, she still looked youthful. Just last week, Park Manor’s stylist had come to her room and given her a pixie cut. Only when Lucy smiled did you realize that something was wrong with her. Then you saw her straight but yellow stained teeth with hardened plaque and food particles at the gum lines. Even Brandon—who could coax Lucy to do almost anything—could rarely get her electric toothbrush into her mouth anymore.
He stroked her short hair. It was soft. It did not feel like the hair of a dead person. But then, wasn’t the hair on your head already dead? Perhaps hair didn’t change when you died. He touched Lucy’s arm. Were the cells in her skin dead yet? He had once read that the body does not die all at once, that the cells give up their lives one by one. Were there any living cells in Lucy that still sensed his presence? “Good-bye, Lucy,” he whispered to those invisible cells. “I’ll miss you.”
Baiba was tapping on the door. Brandon quickly kissed Lucy’s cool forehead, rose from the carpet, and rejoined the Nostalgia Neighborhood care coordinator in the corridor. “Thank you, Baiba.”
Baiba relocked the door. “I didn’t just do that.” She wagged her pale index finger at him and winked. “I’ll have to deny it if you say I did.”
“But I won’t. You know I won’t.”
He returned to the kitchen where Maybelle and Josie were setting the dining room tables for the residents’ breakfast. He slumped into a chair and Maybelle patted his shoulder. “At least she now with God,” she consoled him in her booming Bajan patois. Maybelle was a tall, big boned black woman who carried herself proudly through the Nostalgia Neighborhood of privileged white residents. She was Brandon’s favorite coworker because she was optimistic and kind to the residents. She always adjusted herself to the idiosyncrasies of their dementias instead of trying to force them to relinquish their delusions. When Mr. Morrow wandered the halls and repeatedly asked what time it was, she patiently answered, “Don’t you worry yourself, Mr. Morrow, I not gonna let you miss that train to Scarsdale again!” And when Dr. Evelyn Bruce, a once prominent surgeon at Sloan Kettering, tried to follow Cheryl O’Brien into the dispensary while she prepared medications, Maybelle told her, “Let your nurse do her job, Doctor. Let her be. Now go read your new medical journal.”
Maybelle told Brandon, “You just say a nice prayer for her. She gonna be fine where she gone to.”
“What you crying about it?” Josie called out from the other side of the dining room where she was taking a sponge to a sticky spot someone must have missed during last night’s dinner cleanup. Josie had only worked at Park Manor for two weeks, but she had taken an immediate dislike to Brandon and attacked him whenever she could. “Why you care?” she demanded. “They just a bunch of rich folk. It’s not like they your family.”
Brandon did not agree. How could you not become attached to someone you fed, changed, bathed, and rubbed with body lotion every night? In the past few months, Lucy had rarely uttered more than two or three words at a time, yet he had always known when she was hungry, thirsty, or upset. He had made her laugh. He could coax her to eat, play catch with an inflated beach ball, and swallow her medicine. And he had meant something to her, too. Why else had her face lit up whenever she saw him? She exuded no judgment, only gratitude for what he did for her.
Josie moved closer, shaking her head in disgust. “You call yourself a man, crying like that?”
Brandon let the comment go unanswered, but Maybelle snapped, “You stop that right now, Josie. When my mama pass, my brother cry like a baby in my arms—and he were a big six-foot four-inch man. You let Brandon alone. Let him be. He got a right to espress his feeling.”
“Well, he espress them like a girl.” Josie returned to her work with a new hostile vigor.
Maybelle sat down and leaned in confidentially. “Don’t you pay her no mind, Brandon. Josie from Jamaica, and the Jamaicans is different from the Bajans. We don’t hate on nobody just because they different.”
The irony of Maybelle’s remark was not lost on Brandon. Everybody had his or her own brand of prejudice. At least Maybelle’s wasn’t directed at him. In fact, she had defended him in front of more than one caregiver who objected to working with “someone like him.” Brandon knew he had done nothing overt to provoke Josie’s outsized anger. Either he deeply offended her fixed and narrow definition of normal, he had concluded, or she felt insulted by his decision to abandon one gender for another.
“Thanks, Maybelle.” He forced himself up and into the kitchen. He might as well stay busy, he thought, until Ms. Hodges debriefed them.
Codella flashed her shield at the guards just inside the New York Presbyterian revolving doors. She opened her leather jacket to reveal the Glock in its holster, and the guards made way for her to step around the metal detector. It occurred to her that they probably thought she was here on a case. She wished she were here on a case.
She passed the waiting area, admissions office, and information desk. She glanced into a small glassed-in cafeteria where nurses, orderlies, and doctors stood like zombies in front of the caffeine options. She would have liked to stop and sip a green tea. Instead, she rode the elevator to the fifth floor and pushed open the door to the nuclear medicine department. She knew this drill all too well: check in at the desk, take a seat, and wait for the pitcher.
She chose the same couch she had occupied in October. Her scan then had been clean, and she was not immune to the superstitious belief that repeating her steps of that day might bring another good result. She looked out on the always-congested York Avenue and the East River just beyond. During her treatments, she had occupied rooms with views of the river and had watched for hours as cigarette boats, barges, tugs, and Circle Line tours plied the river’s heavy currents. She had followed the movements of pedestrians on the footpath on Roosevelt Island. She had even found herself thinking, I wish I could be taking a walk on that island right now, although in precancer days and now, she dismissed that island as a depressing concrete outpost cut off from the lifeblood of Manhattan.
She checked her e-mails and opened a text from Haggerty. Thanks for last night. She still couldn’t quite believe last night had actually happened, and she didn’t want to think about what it meant to her or what Haggerty would think it meant. Not now. She looked out the window and searched her mind for something else to focus on.
She would have liked to distract herself in the tangled threads of a complex investigation, but she hadn’t had a challenging case for three very long months. Dennis McGowan, her lieutenant, was making sure of that. When she had accepted the promotion to Manhattan North Homicide—just months before her cancer diagnosis—she’d felt like the teenager who finally graduated to the grown-ups’ table. But the grown-ups weren’t all that grown up, she had discovered, and they weren’t enthusiastic about sharing their table with the detective who had solved a case they’d let go cold.
Four years ago, Elaine DeFarge, a nurse at Columbia Presbyterian, never made it home to her apartment in Fort Greene after her shift. Waste disposal workers found her body two days later, covered by rotting mangoes and bananas in a dumpster behind the uptown Fairway Market. The initial call came into the 171st, and Detective Marty Blackstone caught it. But Captain Reilly knew his detective squad didn’t have the manpower to handle the case alone, so it was shifted up to Manhattan North, and Dan Fisk led a task force that worked the murder for six months without finding DeFarge’s killer.
The files gathered dust for another year, and then Codella asked Reilly if she could study the file. She spent her evenings reading the reports. Manhattan North detectives had investigated family, friends, and hospital staff meticulously. They had considered and ultimately ruled out any connection to the unsolved murders of three other New York City hospital workers killed in the prior five years. Codella didn’t retrace their steps. Instead, she zeroed in on a detail the detectives hadn’t been able to explain and that they had ultimately dismissed as insignificant to the investigation—a three-inch-long lock of Elaine DeFarge’s hair that was missing at the back of her head. Had she cut it off herself, or had someone else snipped a souvenir and left a signature the detectives hadn’t been able to read?
Codella called up cold case murders from every database she could access. She ran keyword searches and looked for any link to the hair. She knew she was searching for a needle in a haystack, but if the needle were there, she was determined to find it. And then one night she had a breakthrough. Six years earlier, the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department had found the body of a woman whose hair appeared to have been snipped in the back—the forensic team had found strands of her cut hair next to the body. The victim was a rental manager at an apartment complex two blocks away from St. Vincent Hospital. The only link to DeFarge Codella could think of was the hospital, so she requested St. Vincent’s employee records from that time period and cross-checked them with the staff working at Columbia Presbyterian when DeFarge had disappeared. A name came up—one name—Wainright Blake, a contract nurse in the postanesthesia care units of both hospitals.
When Codella discovered the connection, Blake had already moved on and was working at White Plains Hospital in Westchester County, twenty-five miles north of Manhattan. When she and county police showed up at his apartment with a warrant, she found a cigar box under his bed with six locks of hair—a souvenir from each of his victims. DNA from those locks helped police in five states put cold cases to rest. New York magazine dubbed her “a genius of deductive reasoning.” The Washington Post featured her in a story on analytical detective work and the need for more integrated crime databases. The LA Times ran a three-part exposé focusing on all the uncorroborated conclusions that had led the original Manhattan North detectives to their dead end. And one night on MSNBC, Rachel Maddow asked her how it felt to bring closure to six families’ grief. The NYPD brass really had no choice but to hand her the promotion Captain Reilly recommended.
So she had joined the “big leagues”—for a little while, at least, until cancer took her on a ten-month detour. And then she’d made her comeback solving the murder of Hector Sanchez. When McGowan had thrown her the body of that dead school principal, he hadn’t counted on the case giving her the equivalent of a Broadway stage on which to make her comeback from cancer oblivion. He had assumed he was throwing her the smelly, days’ old corpse of some unlucky New Yorker who had choked to death on his Seamless order or collapsed from cardiac arrest all alone in his West Side apartment. A detective had to go to the scene, and nobody wanted that job, so he had given it to her. But Sanchez had been anything but a natural death, and the case made not only the tabloids but also the front page of the New York Times. Three months later, op-ed writers were still debating whether Hector Sanchez was a flawed hero or a tyrant. And magazines like People and Vanity Fair had staked their claim on the story because it involved the box office star Dana Drew. McGowan’s attempt to cast Codella as an insignificant extra in his homicide squad had been royally fucked, and now he was doing his utmost to make sure she never got on any stage again.
The pitcher of contrast arrived. The technician who delivered it was the same one who had prepped her for her October scan, and she decided this was another hopeful sign. “Your cocktail, Madam,” he said as he lowered the plastic vessel to the coffee table with a flourish and handed her a paper cup.
“Did you spike it for me?”
“Don’t think you’re the first one to ask me that.” He winked.
She poured some of the unpleasant liquid and held it up to him. “Here’s to boring results.”
Then he was gone and she was left with her anxiety and the liter of liquid to drink. What if lymphoma cells lit up the scan this time? What if she had to go back to round one and begin the fight all over?
“Take off your jewelry,” a nurse instructed her forty-five minutes later as they walked to the locker area. “Earrings, necklaces, rings. No metal.”
Codella just nodded. Only the uninitiated came to scans naively adorned. She peeled out of her clothes, put on the blue hospital gown, and tucked her service revolver and backup gun below her other belongings in the tiny locker. Then she followed the nurse to a small room with three desks, the kind in high school classrooms. She slipped into a seat, propped her arm on the narrow desktop, and watched the focused, efficient nurse tie a tourniquet around her left bicep. While her veins expanded under the pressure, the nurse lifted the lid on a lead-lined box, removed the syringe within, and flicked it several times as she held it toward the light. Then she untied the elastic and pressed needle into flesh. Codella felt the electric prick. She watched the plunger push the radioactive tracer into her vein. She visualized the ionized particles heating her whole arm and spreading through her circulatory system, marking the scenes of any crime her B cells had committed in the last four months.
The nurse led her to a tiny room where she lay on her back while the tracer circulated. Thirty minutes later, she entered the chilly, windowless room that housed the state-of-the-art scanner. She knew this drill, too. Swing your legs up. Lie back. Hands over your head. Do not move. The technician pushed a button and the slab she was on retracted slowly. At this juncture in the familiar routine, she always had the impulse to pray. Instead, as usual, she closed her eyes and whispered, “Fuck, fuck, fuck!”
This is an excerpt from the uncorrected proofs of FORGOTTEN CITY. Any quotes used in print should draw from the published text.
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